Beating Afghanistan’s drug lords

General Khodaidad says the police must be better equipped to fight the drug trade.

Afghanistan - poppy crop

Khodaidad said the ministry needs to be reformed to combat drug-trafficking [MOJUMDAR]

Countering the threat of narcotics may be one of the most difficult jobs in Afghanistan – a war-torn nation which accounts for more than 90 per cent of the world’s poppy production.

According to the UN, drug-trafficking in Afghanistan is backed not just by drug lords, terrorists and insurgents, but also by senior figures in the government and Afghan polity.

Recently, the chief judge of the anti-drugs tribunal was killed after he refused to bow down to threats by drug-traffickers.

But General Khodaidad, the minister of counter-narcotics, has earned rare praise for his efforts as well as his strategies.
This year, the country showed a decline in poppy cultivation for the first time. Khodaidad, however, is not about to rest on his laurels, speaking instead of the difficulties which lie ahead.

Challenges to the counter-narcotics programme come not only from anti-government elements, but even from well-meaning supporters, he explains.

While he acknowledges that there is lack of cohesion in anti-drug efforts, he also says funding by international donors threatens to undercut government policies which have tried to link economic prosperity to a decline in poppy growth.

General Khodaidad spoke with Al Jazeera in his office in Kabul. 

Al Jazeera: This year poppy cultivation has decreased for the first time. Yet, the success is limited to some areas of the country and other areas, such as the south, show no progress. What are the reasons for the success in some areas and the lack of it in others?

Khodaidad: There are lots of difficulties in counter-narcotics issues in Afghanistan, particularly in eradication and law enforcement issues. It is not possible for Afghanistan to solve this drug problem by itself.

In 2008, we were very busy with the pre-planting campaign, distributing public information, travelling to 26 provinces, talking to people. We saw a 19 per cent decrease in poppy cultivation.

However, there are an increasing number of addicts in Afghanistan. I travelled to 26 provinces talking about the harm of poppy cultivation and that it was dangerous, hazardous to the health of people, and bringing in illegal money.

Some $4bn is coming into this country [through the drug trade]. It is harming the interests of legal agriculture.

Which part of your public campaign was more effective – the appeal of religion or law enforcement?

We talked about the role of Islam – that poppy production runs counter to the teachings of Islam and religion. We told them also that poppy growing fuels terrorism and supports insurgents. The governors also realise that enforcing the rule of law has an effect on the reduction of poppy [cultivation].

The Good Performance Initiative (GPI) programme [which rewards provinces that have eliminated poppy cultivation or nearly eliminated it] has delivered the money at the right time to the right place.

Last year the money had already gone to the 13 poppy-free provinces to support the farmers and the governors.

What is the reason these initiatives have not worked in southern Afghanistan?

The problem there is a lack of reform in the Ministry of Interior (MoI). It is under-reformed, and the police do not have equipment. Furthermore, there are no proper prosecutors and judges. The amount of poppy seized last year was less than before. 

The ministry seized only 7,500 tonnes as opposed to 8,200 tonnes the year before. It is not even one per cent which has been seized or captured.

We have to improve this by reforming the MoI and deploying good prosecutors, attorney generals, and judges.

You are emphasising the lack of rule of law as a reason. What of the argument that people grow poppies because of poverty? It is the prosperous provinces in the South which are growing poppies.

There is a link between drugs and terrorism, drugs and drug-trafficking, drugs and corruption, drugs and insurgency and drugs and poverty.

So why was the message you sent out not effective in the South?

We have a strong message. We went by air and by road to the fields, talked to the Ulema – the elders, and the mujahideen, old and new.

We were sending a very strong message. Some people listen very well. The Good Performance Initiative fund impacted a lot.

Khodaidad says the number of Afghan addicts is increasing

You mention the Good Performance Initiative but the amount of money available is very small compared to the direct bilateral aid being given by donors to the poppy growing provinces – Canadians in Kandahar, the British in Helmand and the US in several provinces of the South. How does this impact of the GPI?

I am also worried about the direct work in the provinces. It should be coordinated with the Ministry of Counter Narcotics (MNC).

The projects under the GPI are already underway. There will be $50m for 18 provinces free of poppy. If the donors work directly with the provinces and not through the MNC the effect will be very negative.

We will not be able to achieve the results we seek. The MNC is directly involved with the people.

We are involved in policy and coordination. We are talking to the governors. The right package will send the right message. If Nato or the Coalition go directly to the provinces with aid the result will be negative. We need to coordinate, talk, share and take joint decisions.

Directly working with the provinces without negotiations with the MNC and MoI – the result will be [the] wasting [of effort and resources].

The joint coordination on the GPI is going very well. The pre-planting campaign is going very well. We request the international community not to work directly in provinces.

I am talking to international donors not to go directly to the provinces, to work together. If you give a task to the governor of a province, he will do it.

You have spoken of the difficulties of eradication and counter narcotics campaigns. Do you think this is a job for the police alone?

The strategy keeps changing. We needed a workable long-term strategy for our armed forces. It is not only one country which is looking to reform the MoI.

First it was the Germans and now the US has taken responsibility. The number of police is increasing. We need to increase the quality and capability and have a well-educated police with a strong leadership. We need an honest police force to fulfil the responsibilities of law enforcement.

The concept of auxiliary police does not work in Afghanistan. We need an accountable police force, not self-styled police. The police must have the trust of the Afghan people.

Now we have 330 people trained in counter-narcotics efforts. The ministry of defence promised force protection during eradication.

But last year you did not get this force protection?

We hope we should do better. Eradication is getting harder. We did not have force protection in Helmand last year. We have discussed force protection and it has been promised.

What about the role of international forces in counter-narcotics?

There is an in-principle decision on adoption of the 12-point action plan. The job is very clear to everyone: to Nato and to the Afghan national army.

Our ministry cannot work on its own. It needs Nato air support and support from Coalition forces.

Thomas Schweich, a former US ambassador for counter-narcotics and justice reform in Afghanistan, has pointed to the ‘stability first, counter-narcotics later’ strategy employed by the Pentagon. Why will foreign forces not become more involved in anti-drug campaigns?

Without Nato we cannot complete this job.

They should destroy the labs, hit the convoys, and hit the base – the locations where all the drugs are made, processed, shipped and so on.

Police on their own cannot fully carry out eradication. The international community should target the labs and convoys if they want to save the lives of their own soldiers.

Otherwise they are wasting their time. The right bullet has to be fired at the right target.

What about the Afghan government? Do you and the prosecutors face ‘telephone justice’ whenever someone with links high up is arrested?

Drug-traffickers are always using someone to save them. Judge Halim was killed and the honest people are always getting threats. The international community must take more responsibility. Nato, the European Commission, and the embassies must realise that their involvement is crucial.

How would you describe your job? 

It is a very dangerous job. I travel a lot to the provinces. I receive a lot of threats. It is not an easy job. It is not the job for one man, for one ministry.

If we work together [and] support each other the job will be easy. If not, I am not optimistic about the future of Afghanistan, especially in regards to eradicating the poppy trade.

Source: Al Jazeera